2028: Europe lies in ruins. Civilization is now focused in Africa, and from there an intrepid explorer sets out in his spherical aircraft:
Catherine Hessling is the last woman living in Paris; the only other inhabitant is a very fake-looking ape. The sound of the aircraft approaching takes the two of them by surprise:
The ape runs off, and Hessling opens a door and hides inside the pillar. The explorer alights from the airship, and we get our first proper look at his face:
Oh. Inexplicably, blackface is alive and well in future African society.
Hearing his arrival, Hessling emerges from her pillar:
He is nonplussed at her appearance and greeting, which takes the form of aggressively dancing towards him.
He runs away, but the danseuse prowls after him, shaking her hips to the fullest. (Also, note the Nana poster on the column!)
She circles him, tying him to a pole with vines while he looks (understandably) terrified:
As he looks on, she demonstrates the Charleston. First fast:
Imma let you finish, but Catherine Hessling has other moves too:
The explorer is impressed by her gyrations and wants to see more before she offs him:
He mimes biting into his arm, and she is shocked:
Oh god. Wow.
The dancer conjures up a telephone, allowing the explorer to call home and inform them that he has discovered the Charleston, “the traditional dance of the Whites” (!)
Copying Hessling, the explorer begins to dance:
This is an activity at which he has considerable skills.
After they both cut a rug for several more minutes, the explorer makes to leave; when the dancer expresses regret, he indicates for her to join him.
In a nice bit of visual trickery, Hessling calls her overcoat and then umbrella to her—and the duo float off in the aircraft, headed back to Central Africa.
This film truly is bizarre, and although I haven’t seen much of his work, would seem to be an outlier in Renoir’s oeuvre. At a library sale recently I acquired a copy of Alexander Sesonske’s Jean Renoir: The French Films, 1924-1939, which devotes a short chapter to Sur Un Air de Charleston. According to this text, Renoir shot this film in three days using film stock left over from Nana: a last independent fling before he moved into filmmaking produced by others. It was never completed, and what exists was cobbled together from what had been shot; it is uncertain if it was ever shown publicly. A score was to be commissioned, but since the film was not completed, the music was never written. (Therefore, what exists is a truly silent film; I played The Thing’s Garage as a soundtrack while watching it).
The history of the film was further confused by conflicting reports of its length: the only extant prints, held by the Cinémathèque Française, are about 20 minutes in length, but French sources list(ed) it at 1200m in length, while Renoir remembered it (tentatively) as a one-reeler. I am inclined to believe the author when he proposes that on the basis of the evidence, it is likely that the film was 1200 feet in length, and at some point in the past this was reprinted erroneously as 1200 metres. According to Sesonske, the CF prints have/had neither intertitles nor credits, so the source of the intertitles present in this version is unclear.
The reversal the film is trying to set up is obvious: a white woman is the primitive Other, suspected of cannibalism by the gentleman explorer, a Black man. The ‘white savage’ teaches the explorer her ‘tribal dance’, the Charleston, and at the end of the film he takes her back to civilization. I believe the Charleston has roots in Black dance culture, so the premise is a bit shakey. Even so, maybe the film could have worked, if the explorer hadn’t looked more Al Jolson than Paul Robeson:
To add insult to injury, the explorer was actually played by a Black man, Johnny Huggins, a dancer from the Revue Nègre in Paris. One would think, too, that the science-fictional premise of this already experimental and weird film would have rendered this minstrelry unnecessary. It reduces the explorer caricature rather than character.
In contrast to this bad decision, there are some lovely visual moments in the film. There is something iconic about the airship being a floating sphere; one is reminded of René Magritte’s paintings … or Rover from The Prisoner.
I also enjoyed Renoir’s use of negative footage in the flight sequence at the start of the film. I handle negatives so much in my job, it’s nice to see them in a different context.
There is also something charming about this shot of the broken Eiffel Tour, symbol of the degradation of 2028 Paris:
Also of interest: when the dancer uses the telephone, we see shots of a group of angels apparently answering her call. They are played by important French film personnages of the time, including Renoir himself, although I don’t know them well enough offhand to identify everyone.
In summary: Sur Un Air de Charleston is an interesting film, truly strange enough to be appealing. Catherine Hessling’s mannered acting style works quite well here, and her dancing is very expressive. There is something quite nice about the idea of two people connecting through dance, and I certainly never looked at the Charleston quite like this before. Johnny Huggins seems a very talented dancer and it’s a real shame that his true face wasn’t considered acceptable to show, even in the context of a science fiction story.
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Sur Un Air de Charleston. Dir. Jean Renoir. Néo-Films, 1927.
Available in the Jean Renoir 3-disc Collector’s Edition.